New Delhi, September 2— The Coronavirus pandemic has forced schools in India to go online, like they have done globally. In the absence of physical classrooms and proper digital infrastructure, the economically-disadvantaged students are facing major challenges. The major problem of distance learning in the country is disparity in access — from electricity and internet connections to devices like computers or even smartphones. And this digital divide between the haves and have-nots is acutely felt in remote far-flung areas. Yet there have been some heartening stories of individual and collective altruism to bridge this digital chasm.
Nazima, a 9-year-old from Turtuk Preparatory School in remote Ladakh, overcame the digital deficit in her village in the northern Himalayas, with the help of her long-distance teacher Vaishnavi Tadikonda, a volunteer teacher of the Project Parwaaz. The crowd-sourced project allows Vaishnavi to take telephonic lectures while sitting nearly 2800 km away in the city of Hyderabad in Southern India.
“My name is Nazima. I stay in Turtuk. I study in the fourth grade,” says Nazima.
Vaishnavi has been teaching Nazima to help her cope with the loss of curriculum.
“I started the classes on July 19. I just started with teaching her a few sentences in English to see her grasping power and how much she actually gets things. She was pretty intelligent,” says Vaishnavi.
Schools, colleges and universities across the country have been closed since the middle of March in view of the spread of the pandemic, forcing the authorities to hold classes online in order to save the academic year of the students.
An estimated 70 million children aged between 5-11 years in India access the internet on devices of their family members, where working parents are forced to share their phones with their children for their distance learning. Mobile phones continue to be the device of choice for accessing the internet among not so privileged in both urban and rural India. However, poor connectivity and lack of smart devices are nagging obstacles to online education.
In Tsuruhu, a remote village in India’s northeastern state of Nagaland, in another corner of the country, a pastor found a unique solution to tackle the lack of internet connectivity with only 3 smartphones among the 90 residents of the village. The students in Tsuruhu didn’t see much hope in giving their examinations that had moved online. But Tsuruhu Baptist church’s pastor Shikavi Awomi came to their rescue. He joined forces with the local students’ union that volunteered to create a small camp on a lone hilltop.
Shikavi Awomi recalls: “One day I came to the forest to collect some good soil for the flowers at home. Which is when I found this place.”
Apulo H Zhimo, class 9 student of Mission Higher Secondary School in Dimapur says: “Every morning we walk half an hour to reach our camp. It is located in a dense forest, strangely the only place with internet connection in our village.”
At first, members of the students’ union would climb atop trees to switch on mobile data. Then a small clearing was made to install benches for the students.
Akitoli H Zhimo, class 12 student of the same school, says: “Overall it has been a bittersweet experience for me because I get to enjoy the beautiful scenery with lots of melodious songs of the birds.”
On the edge of the National Capital, Delhi, a 25-year-old teaches underprivileged students under a flyover in Yamuna Khadar.
Satyendra Pal, the teacher, says: “In July as soon as we found out that their online sessions had started, we observed that these students didn’t have a place to stay let alone study. Even internet connectivity is patchy. They don’t have access to laptops or smartphones or tablet.”
Gautam is one such student who has been able to resume studying through Satyendra’s digital solutions.
Gautam, student of Class 4, says: “Sir taught us many things and I have slowly learnt English. With the lockdown, our schools were shut down. I studied online through WhatsApp.”
Satyendra’s Mission is to inspire more people to teach in this country.
“If you intend to teach someone and impart knowledge, the best way is to stoke the interest of the young minds. It should not be just the curriculum but increasing their capabilities and confidence,” he says.
Malala Yousufzai, education activist and noble prize laureate, said: “One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.”
Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, former President of India, had once said: “The end-product of education should be a free creative man, who can battle against historical circumstances and adversities of nature.”